Brian Ferguson: Plenty of twists and turns left in film studio saga

There is nothing like a cinematic twist or two to jolt the senses of an audience safe in the knowledge of where the ending was heading. You

Monday, 3rd October 2016, 11:36 pm
Updated Tuesday, 4th October 2016, 2:13 pm
The Pentland Studios project is earmarked for green belt land in Midlothian.

How ironic, then, that the saga over a Scottish film studio has burst back into life when it seemed to be on the verge of a long-awaited conclusion.

It is only a few months since the Scottish Government was dropping heavy hints that the government was finally ready to endorse the nation’s first purpose-built studio.

There has been some disappointment earlier in the year when culture secretary Fiona Hyslop trumpeted the expansion of the vast warehouse complex in Cumbernauld used as a base for US TV series Outlander.

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It quickly became obvious that the injection of £4 million in public funding to boost the size of a complex expected to be in use for the hit show for the foreseeable future would not be enough to pacify the increasingly vocal campaigners for the studio.

They had previously thrown their weight behind a £230 million project for a site in Midlothian, which does not require a penny of public funding, and is therefore complaint with state aid funding rules, but needs official approval to be built on green belt land.

Despite more than two years of discussions and promises of more than 900 jobs, the consortium behind the Pentland Studios scheme completely failed to win the backing of the local authority, which feared it would hamper other developments, cause too much disruption and blight the local landscape.

The mood music from the Scottish Government has been altogether different since it called in the plans for an inquiry. By the time of the 70th Edinburgh International Film Festival in June, where Ms Hyslop was making a keynote speech, it appeared it was only a matter of time before the Pentland Studios project was given the green light.

At the time she said: “We know Scotland can support more than one facility and that’s why we’re open to new proposals from the private sector which are, and this is the crucial point, state aid compliant.”

Any hopes of a quick decision on that project have long since been dished, with the inquiry reporter still gathering evidence until the end of last week. But the impending deadline certainly seems to have focused minds, judging by developments in recent days.

Firstly, a rival project has emerged from nowhere, for a site on land owned by Heriot Watt University, but accompanied by a familiar soundtrack about a lack of support from the local authority and other public bodies.

News of another potential site for a studio has injected fresh life into the environmental campaigners against the Pentland Studios scheme, who say it will involve “central belt clearances.”

At the heart of their cause is 82-year-old farmer, Jim Telfer, whose family claim he has been threatened with eviction after more than a century by a landowner that has struck a deal with the Pentland Studios developer.

Powerful allies have emerged, including the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, which has described the proposal as an "aggressive development" and the Scottish Green Party, with MSP and leading land reform campaigner Andy Wightman branding the treatment of Mr Telfer "simply unacceptable” and urging the government to recognise the strength of local feeling against the studio.

The staging of a protest at the Scottish Parliament appears to have triggered the intervention of a major PR company - which says it is representing the landowner, rather than the developers – to brand the eviction claims “outrageous, wrong and defamatory.”

With its latest missive accusing opponents of the studio of "inventing a movie script worthy of Hollywood" to try to block the plans, it looks like there will be plenty of further intrigue to come before the final credits roll.